Patrick Hosken | Staff Writer
Two springs ago, Jack Voelker attended a recreation professionals conference to present on reconnecting children with nature. At the same conference, a spokesman for the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program presented on enhancing the natural areas of golf courses.
Voelker, general manager of the Chautauqua Golf Club, met with the spokesman to talk business and discovered that he was quite familiar with Chautauqua.
“He shared with me that his grandmother used to come … and play the piano at the Presbyterian House many, many years ago,” Voelker said. “He knew all about Chautauqua.”
That meeting spawned a collaboration between the Golf Club and Audubon International that continues today. Audubon’s program goes hand-in-hand with the Golf Club’s, Voelker said.
“It’s all about finding a balance between providing a high-quality golf experience but doing it in an environmentally friendly way,” Voelker said, “and that’s very much where our motivation is.”
The Chautauqua Golf Club has begun the process of becoming certified through the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program under the leadership of Voelker and Golf Club superintendent Trevor Burlingame.
For the first step of the process, Burlingame submitted a “site assessment” of the course to Audubon, which its staff is currently reviewing. The Golf Club’s assessment contained more than 30 pages on the course’s soil and grass types, a breakdown of acres and a detailed inventory of plant and wildlife. Voelker said the course features a wide range of animals to spot.
“Personally, I’ve seen a fox, wild turkeys, certainly deer, woodchucks, skunks, geese, a tremendous amount of birdlife,” Voelker said. “I believe that at some point, others have sighted a black bear.”
Once Audubon accepts the assessment, its staff will work with Voelker, Burlingame and others at the Golf Club to compile a list of specific goals for the course to complete. One idea the Golf Club staff has already come up with is to build up some of the out-of-play areas on the course and let them become “natural” areas.
Reaching this goal, Burlingame said, will help build up more wildlife habitats, will reduce the area needed to mow — also reducing pollution — and will give the course a different look.
Once the course completes its Audubon-approved list of goals, the Golf Club must keep record of its improvements to maintain certification. This involves assessing the improvements, maintaining them and making a list of goals for the future.
“Clearly, this is the real heart of the process,” Voelker said.
When the Golf Club reaches certification, the last stage is to educate about the project. One of the best ways to do this, Voelker said, is to enlist those in the Chautauqua community to help with a complete wildlife inventory. From there, Voelker plans to spread the word to local schools and Scout and environmental groups.
Burlingame said the hardest part is going to be “golfer perspective.”
“If you let things grow out, sometimes in areas around waterways, it looks unkempt,” Burlingame said.
Burlingame plans to frequently update his golf course maintenance blog, which he started more than a year ago, to keep Golf Club members and players informed on changes to the course and why those changes are made.
The task to get certified may seem like a daunting one, but the Golf Club has been working toward certification since even before Voelker attended the conference two years ago.
About 75 percent of the course’s irrigation comes from effluent, which is water that has been treated at the waste treatment plant. Ponds collect and hold the water, which prevents it from going directly into Chautauqua Lake. This allows the course’s grass to absorb the effluent’s nutrients.
In his 10th season as superintendent, Burlingame said this has been the case since he arrived.
In addition to the effluent irrigation, Burlingame said he only sprays pesticides about once every 21 days. Most courses, he said, spray once or twice a week.
Burlingame also uses slow-release, temperature-controlled fertilizers to reduce nutrient runoff and special nozzles on chemical hoses that prevent excess material from spraying into the breeze. Burlingame said he only spreads about 6 to 8 ounces per acre of chemicals on the course.
“Every golf course has to define their threshold tolerance for what they can get away with,” he said. The threshold at Chautauqua is kept at a level that respects environmental impact.
At the end of the day, Voelker said, undertaking the Audubon project is a great opportunity for the staff to examine the course to find ways to be constantly improving.
“Even if we never receive the certification, it’s an excellent process because it is a self-evaluation and an assessment,” Voelker said, quickly adding, “I have every expectation we will get certified because, like I said, we’re well along.”